by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor

Well, Idaho football always has another TV network alternative in case it can’t forge its way into an agreement with the Mountain West or Sun Belt for future membership.

SOAPnet, for one, might find the Vandals’ plight to be very compelling viewing.

So it goes for Idaho, one of the last of the WAC refugees, still wondering where its future conference home might be.

Of course, recent disintegration of the WAC membership has put Idaho, and especially its football program, in a perilous position. As schools have peeled away from the league, the Vandals and New Mexico State are currently slated to be the only football-playing members left after this season. Most observers suspect the WAC is on its last legs and that beginning next year, Idaho and NM State are going to have to fend for themselves.

But before proceeding much further, here’s a mid-summer update on the WAC...and what Idaho’s options might be in the near future.

1) The WAC endures. Strange as this sounds, sources expect interim WAC commissioner Jeff Hurd to exhaust every available avenue before the conference shuts its doors. While the league is due to lose La Tech (to CUSA), San Jose State and Utah State (both to the Mountain West), and this year’s new and one-year only members UTSA (to Conference USA) and Texas State (to the Sun Belt) next season, not to mention new hoops member UT-Arlington (also to the Belt), Hurd is reportedly scrambling to cobble together an alliance to keep the WAC alive as a football, as well as basketball and other “olympic” sports, league.

The new rumor has Hurd seeking to add an “East Division” to the WAC (hey, if the Big East can add Boise State and San Diego State, why can’t the WAC add a few teams from the Eastern Time Zone?), targeting the likes of Appalachian State, Liberty, Jacksonville State, and Georgia Southern, using the carrot of the FBS. Meanwhile, current Big Sky reps Portland State and Sacramento State, and perhaps even Montana, could be in play for football membership as well.

Short-term, expect Idaho and New Mexico State to stay put in the WAC, especially since they’re set to receive a pro-rated amount of the penalties paid by Fresno State, Nevada, and Hawaii for bolting the league to the Mountain West. If Hurd can pull a Houdini act and stitch together a viable gridiron coalition after this season, the WAC might yet survive as a gridiron league and spare the Vandals and Aggies.

2) The Mountain West calls. This looks to be a very unlikely development, especially for Idaho, although it would be the Vandals’ dream scenario. With Boise State apparently ready to carry out its proposed move to the Big East next season (which many observers believed the Broncos were ready to abort earlier this summer), and San Diego State apparently not considering a u-turn back to the Mountain, either, there might be a small opening for Idaho and perhaps even New Mexico State to squeeze into the MW. There is a school of thought that the Mountain West would like to get to 12 members, sooner rather than later, and that as long as Boise and San Diego are definitely out of the picture, perhaps the Mountain simply adds the Vandals the Las Cruces-based Aggies. But to this point, the Mountain is on record as saying that Idaho and NM State do not fit into its future plans, and sources say there are other targets higher on the MW wish list. The same sources tell us it is highly unlikely that Idaho or NM State will be of interest to the Mountain in the near future, either, with several other potential candidates within view.

3) How about the Sun Belt? This looks like a more-plausible alternative than the Mountain West for both Idaho and New Mexico State, especially since each had earlier enlisted with the Belt (football-only in Idaho’s case). This scenario depends a lot upon what happens to the Belt’s membership ranks, which have been undergoing significant fluctuations over the past twelve months. The Belt, which has added and subtracted several schools recently, could be in the mood to add a couple of more if Middle Tennessee and Western Kentucky are targeted by Conference USA, as rumored.

Keep in mind, however, that Idaho and New Mexico State (especially Idaho) are costly and out-of-the-way road trips for a league like the Sun Belt. The Vandals and Aggies are better geographic fits in the Mountain West, although that alone is not going to be enough to help the candidacies of either.

4) The MAC? Yes, the MAC, at least in the case of Idaho, has been mentioned. Perhaps looking for another member to replace recently-departed Temple, but mostly to keep a connection to Boise Famous Idaho Potato Bowl, one of the MAC’s few-contractually guaranteed bowls (at least for the moment), sources say the Mid-American Conference has reportedly floated the idea of extending an invitation to the Vandals, although this would probably be an Idaho-only situation (New Mexico State has reportedly not crossed the MAC’s radar screen).

5) Big Sky? The default option for Idaho, which would be welcomed back into its former home league with open arms. This, however, would likely mean a drop back into the FCS ranks in football, as the Sky does not appear to be looking to join the FBS ranks anytime soon. For a variety of reasons, this would be the most-convenient move for Idaho, although it would mean the Vandals might have to downgrade the football end of their operation.

For what it’s worth, the Big Sky reportedly has no interest in adding New Mexico State.

6) FBS football independence? This remains a possible last resort for both the Vandals and Aggies should they not secure an invitation to a new league and the WAC folds its football operation next year and wish to stay in the FBS ranks. Independence is considered a possibility in both Moscow and Las Cruces, especially if the WAC stays alive in other sports, although most regional observers believe Idaho or NM State football would survive only a few years as an independent. Both could park their pigskin programs in this lot for a year or two while they survey potential new homes, but as a long-range solution, the indie route looks unlikely for both the Vandals and Aggies.

As always, stay tuned for further developments.

In the meantime, Idaho prepares for at least one more season of WAC football in the fall. Unfortunately, prospects look rather bleak as the Vandals have regressed since their exciting bowl-winning side of 2009, collapsing all of the way to 2-10 a year ago.

These developments have put sixth-year HC Robb Akey (right) on the hot seat in Moscow as his overall record as Idaho’s coach has fallen to 19-43. Moreover, only nine starters return from last year’s side that began the slide into oblivion.

Akey, in survival mode, was quick to make staff moves in the offseason, especially for a offense that almost dropped off the map in 2011 after posting respectable numbers in previous years. Not last fall, however, as Idaho slipped all of the way to 107th-ranked in scoring (only 20.3 ppg) and 111th in total offense (with a mere 302 ypg).

Reaching back into his days on the staffs of Mike Price and Bill Doba at Washington State, Akey has enlisted a pair of ex-Cougs in hopes of rebooting the strike force. Former Wazzu QB Jason Gesser, who joined Akey’s staff a year ago as RB coach after coaching for a few years on the high school level, has been promoted to the offensive coordinator position. Another former Coug, Mike Levenseller, a onetime star receiver for Wazzu in the ‘70s and a 19-year member of the Coug staff as o.c. and WR coach, is the new coach of the Vandal receivers, while veteran assistant Gordy Shaw, long ago (1989) Idaho’s defensive coordinator but more recently the OL coach for Greg McMackin’s staff at Hawaii, assumes the position of OL coach/run game coordinator for the Vandals.

WAC sources, however, report that the offensive strategy will be a collaborative effort, with Levenseller’s strength in game-planning and offensive management looking to complement Gesser’s role as a play-caller, although most observers believe Levenseller is a good fall-back option for Akey should Gesser struggle in his new role.

Gesser attempted to put his stamp on the Idaho offense in spring, trying to simplify the scheme which he believed became too complicated a year ago. But there were no answers in finding a new QB to run the show this fall after last year’s starter Brian Reader graduated following the 2011 campaign.

The competition continues into fall camp, after jr. Taylor Davis (right, vs, San Jose State last fall), who struggled with only 45% completions, 4 picks and a mere 1 TD pass in limited work when Reader was injured last fall, and the peripatetic jr. Dominique Blackman could not separate from one another during a slow-developing spring.

Of the two, Blackman hints at the most upside, as his big size (6'5 and 255 lbs.) and strong arm will give opposing defenses reason to pause. But Blackman has jumped to more teams the past few years than has new Arizona State coach Todd Graham; after Blackman originally signed with Washington, he went to junior college, then redshirted at Old Dominion, and now ends up at Idaho. If he’s not careful, he’ll have spent his entire college career transferring and never playing. As for Davis, he was erratic in his three starts a year ago, though did lead a late rally for a 32-29 win at San Jose State, one of the Vandals’ mere two victories a year ago.

Spring, however, also didn’t provide many answers for a retooled offensive line that lost three starters to graduation from a year ago and endured an injury-marred March. If there was one benefit to the rash of hurts along the line in spring, it was that RS frosh LT Cody Elenz (one of the few linemen who stayed healthy through the drills) got a chance to make his mark and delivered, and enters the fall on top of the depth chart as the protector of either Reed or Blackman’s backside.

Injuries were also a problem last year for jr. RB Ryan Bass (left, vs. San Jose last November), a former Arizona State transfer who was limited to 44 carries due to a chest contusion in 2011 as the graduated Princeton McCarty and Kama Bailey took most of the snaps in the backfield. If healthy, Bass promises breakaway potential, but he has to first stay on the field. Juco transfer James Baker figures to push for carries and will be the first option should Bass go down once more.

Two of the top three receivers from last year have also graduated, although the top pass-catcher from 2011, sr. WR Mike Scott (right; 55 receptions a year ago), is back in the fold. Juco Najee Lovett (Contra Costa College in Northern California) was one of the “movers” in spring and could assume a more-featured role if sr. Jason Veltung is slow to return from the turf toe surgery that kept him out of spring drills.

Speaking of spring drills, the most busy Vandal was probably sr. PK Trey Farquhar, especially during the spring game when a sputtering offense continued to stall in the red zone, prompting five FG attempts, not exactly what Akey, Gesser, and Levenseller were hoping to see.

Meanwhile, Akey, the longtime defensive coordinator at Wazzu before taking the Idaho job in 2007, believes his stop unit can be somewhat formidable in the fall. Which might look like misplaced enthusiasm after the Vandals ranked 98th in scoring defense (33.3 ppg) and 101st in total defense (437 ypg) a year ago.

Only five listed starters return from 2011, but most of the projected two-deep has plenty of experience. Moreover, the return of LB Robert Siavii, who led the Vandals in tackles in 2010 before knee injuries curtailed his plans last fall, figures to be a plus.

Still, we would prefer to temper the excitement for a stop unit that when last seen was being shredded by Nevada in the 2011 season finale, 56-3.

Akey, however, believes he has some veteran playmakers in the mix, especially up front (or the “War Daddies” as Akey refers to them), where jr. DT Quayshawne Buckley and sr. DE Benson Mayowa (left; the returning Vandal sack leader after recording four of them a year ago) anchor the line.

WAC sources say Akey feels similarly confident with his an all-senior LB corps, where Siavii is back in the fold and figures to provide a disruptive presence from the edge, while MLB Sua Tuala was the star of spring drills.

There is also plenty of experience in the secondary, where srs. CB Aaron Grymes and FS Gary Walker (right, aiming at a La Tech runner last October) return as starters, with several key reserves from 2011 ready to contribute (including jrs. CB Terry Carter and SS Trey Williams, expected to step into starting roles this fall). Again, however, we suggest caution, as the pass defense was torched for nearly 280 yards per game last fall and ranked a lowly 111th nationally when also allowing 64% completions and 28 TD passes.

In order to get necessary paydays, Idaho normally sacrifices itself in a couple of non-conference road games; this fall, it will be trips to LSU, North Carolina, and BYU (ouch!) to help pad the athletic department coffers. Akey’s team also travels to Bowling Green, which laid a 32-15 beating on UI in last season’s opener. Moreover, the Vandals are on the road against the consensus 1-2 picks in the WAC, La Tech and Utah State. The good news is that aforementioned Nevada, which has scored 382 points (55 ppg!) the past seven years against Idaho, is gone to the Mountain West and off of Vandal schedules for the foreseeable future (whew!), and WAC newbies Texas State and UTSA provide a couple of decent win opportunities this fall.

Spread-wise, the Vandals are only 3-10 vs. the line in their last 13 vs. FBS foes at the Kibbie Dome; a lot of pointspread good the recent refurbishment to the Vandals’ home field has done! The upgraded facility also no longer has the distinctive bathroom tile designs on the outer west wall that reminded us of the early version of Shea Stadium, but the remodeling slightly changed that look that also reminded us of the 1964-65 World's Fair and its Unisphere at Flushing Meadow Park adjacent to Shea. Were it up to us, we’d bring back the Kibbie Dome's old Shea Stadium/bathroom tile look instead of the new plain, white walls...just in case anyone asks our opinion.

Summary...Idaho is about to enter uncharted waters, as its football future in the WAC (or wherever) is up in the air after this season. Moreover, the Robb Akey regime can probably not survive anything close to the 2-10 record of a year ago, as it would confirm that all momentum from the 2009 Humanitarian Bowl win over Bowling Green will have dissipated. The Vandals are rarely going to win with defense; Akey had the proper recipe a few years ago when the “O” was dynamic and featured capable Nathan Enderle at QB, but Idaho is not going anywhere if the strike force isn’t keeping the “D” off the field. With the QB spot looking to be a mystery, and indicators of an offensive renaissance hard to identify, about the best we can expect in Moscow is a marginal improvement upon last year’s 2-10 mark. Whether that will be enough to keep Akey employed into the Vandals’ uncertain future remains to be seen.


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